What users want from help content

Research has shown that most users have short attention spans when viewing help. If they don't find what they are looking for, or if they don't recognize it when they do find it, they will give up and seek help elsewhere (Google, Customer Support, etc.). Each time they give up, their overall trust in the help decreases.

So how can we create help content that improves trust?

By giving them exactly what they want, and no more.

By "no more" I mean separating reference material from procedures and FAQs, and providing information in a granular way. Readers are easily overwhelmed. If you give them too much information, they will struggle to find the specific information they seek.

Here are some suggestions for providing users with exactly the information they need.

  • Use FAQs heavily. The question-based titles allow users to quickly determine whether an FAQ will meet their needs. Use search data when writing the question-based titles so that they are worded in the same manner that users ask the questions.
  • Move overview content into separate topics, and into a printed manual. Overview information is more linear than procedures. By putting such information in a manual, you allow interested users to read that content in a more user-friendly manner. Also, you avoid cluttering the help with background information that experienced users won't need.
  • Build embedded help, if possible, or use F1 functionality to tie context-sensitive topics to the interface. That way users can quickly find information relevant to the task they wish to perform.
  • Take advantage of the navigation features in your authoring tools. For example, RoboHelp now offers keyword-based search. If you implement this feature, users will be able to find relevant topics even if their search keywords do not appear in the topic.
  • Provide options. If users access the help in a manner that doesn't provide context, present them with a list of options that will narrow down their content needs. For example, your Welcome topic might include the following four links: FAQs, Procedures, Overviews, Tutorials.
  • Gather feedback whenever possible. Take advantage of user forums, usability testing, and other forms of information so that you can improve the help based on real usage data.

Remember, the primary job of a technical writer is to act as a user advocate. If you stay focused on that goal, your efforts will result in highly useful help content.

See also: How help search should work.